Harvest Report 2019

2019 Harvest and Season Notes

Another year of extremes… and wolves.

The headline grabbing moment of the year was late June, when we had 45°C in Carpentras (our nearest town). This was pretty hot, and made for early morning starts, and not much happening in the vineyard during the afternoons. But the season was also extremely dry, had frost, some hail – and yet ended up being a late year, due to a cool spring and a not-that-hot August.

The late-ish harvest (we finished on 16th October, it was October 5th last year), under good conditions, means we had a number of days when the nights were below 10°C before harvest – and that always contributes to sound biological ripeness of the crop.

Nature had been fairly mean the last three years (drought/heat in 2016, frost in 2017, mildew in 2018) but with our organic balance in the vines she seemed happy to deliver a healthy-sized crop this year, but still averageing about 30hl/ha. That this is nearly double last year’s yield shown how pitiful that was. We have farmed organically since 2006 – also the last year we used any form of pesticide or insecticide – it is clear to me that the vineyard has a balance to it.

The year’s rainfall at Unang to the end of September was 255mm – this makes it the driest growing season we have seen. We tried to plant a small parcel in March but the ground was too hard and we had to postpone. More generally, this meant that many producers were reporting very small grapes on their vines. A respected producer on the sands in Vacqueyras, which, as a soil type, retains very little of the rain that falls, told me he will now have to spend the next ten years trying to perfect irrigation on a mosaic of soil types on the sand, or he risks having no crop at all.

Our soils seemed to hold on to reserves from the huge rainfall we saw in October to December 2018, that was why our yields held up. It was also why the overflow of spring water to our ‘bassin’ on the front of the chateau continued to flow all year – something it hasn’t managed in the last three years. This does all underline how key the winter rains are now, as we cannot rely on decent rainfall coming during the season.

We dry-farm at Unang, but we are seeing more and more irrigation systems installed, and my feeling is that a combination of the hardware, ludicrousy cheap water and a farmer’s production mentality makes it highly likely that resulting crops will be over rather than under-irrigated.

Another key shift that was amply demonstrated this year is the continuing divergence of sugar levels and biological ripeness. The sugar is coming earlier – with the hot and dry growing season – but the biological ripeness still seems to require the trigger of cooler temperatures. This is making ripe tannins, at reasonable sugar levels, harder to achieve. At least those of us in the cooler hills of Ventoux are better placed than many to navigate this relatively new problem.

This year did though throw up the oddity of some non-local varieties in the region (e.g. Chardonnay, Merlot) being ripe earlier than usual but some local varieties (Grenache, Cinsault was the classic) being late-ripening – and in some cases not getting there at all. We picked our Cinsault towards the end of the campaign at sugar levels of 11.5 to 12.5% potential alcohol. I heard of others picking theirs at 9% as they were not moving – I imagine large yields may have hindered these.

Much of the above underlines that farmers are at the cutting edge of the climate developments. Interesting data on harvest dates in Chateauneuf-du-Pape (where there are the most detailed records in the region) shows the degree of change. The data is from Inter-Rhone, the administrative organisation for wine in the Rhone Valley. The average harvest start date in the late 1970s was 23rd September, yet by the late 2000s it was 6th September. A shift of two-and-a-half weeks in 30 years is rapid in agricultural terms. And other areas, such as Alsace, have seen an even more dramatic shift (more than three weeks). Where will it go from here?

We are currently working through the last of the sugars in the tanks. This year we have one tank based on our oldest Cinsault, a first for us – it is usually blended with the Grenache. We also tried an overnight skin maceration for the Grenache Blanc for the white. So, the evolution continues. Given that we harvested later, it will be interesting to see if the secondary, malolactic fermentation starts now before the temperatures start to fall.

In the caveau, we are getting ready to label a new wine – something that last happened in 2007 with La Gardy. It is a 2015 Syrah bottled in 2017. I have called it “867” as that is the year when ‘Villa Unango’ was first mentioned – the fact that this was 1,150 years ago puts our presence here into rather humbling perspective. Obviously, it’s not 100% Syrah, as that would not be legal under the AOC Ventoux rules – but it is not very far off it.

Usually, these end of season notes have me whingeing about the wild boar scoffing much of our fruit. Now that most of our electric fences are plugged into the mains they are less keen to breach our defences. Sadly, the fences in the valley (some distance from a house) are still on batteries – and there the boar made merry. So it is pleasing to learn that the boars themselves have something new to worry about. Ageing, ineffective local hunters may be hanging up their guns but a slightly more efficient apex-predator is now on the doorstep – the wolf.

Their atmospheric calls have been heard from the hill on the opposite side of the valley a few times, and the local shepherds have been complaining about their presence (and don’t seem to take their protected status that seriously). It seems the arrivals are the result of a population re-introduced in the Italian Alps a decade ago, that have since spread. There was video footage of six cubs on the north side of Mont Ventoux – it could be a young male from there looking for territory that we are now hearing. The already notable biodiversity at Unang continues to expand.

JK 22.10.19




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